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I have a business trip coming up which requires a roundtrip ticket HND-SFO. As I do for all trips, business and pleasure, I start shopping around aggregator sites, like expedia, and then directly purchase with the airline.

Usually the difference in price is negligible, and what I see in expedia mirrors exactly what I see on the airline website, in terms of price and availability.

This time was no different, and I found a business class seat in Japan Airlines (JL) in fare class D, which has no choice in seating, and has a non refundable part of the cost.

On the other side, I contacted the business travel agency my company works with. Usually they have exactly the same fares as expedia, but this time they found another business class seat in the same flights, for the same days, in the same airline, in fare class X, which is 30% cheaper than the one before, totally refundable and probably with a choice of seat.

I understand fare classes vary by airline, so this is likely JL-specific, but in general, I want to know what happened here. How is it that the travel agency has a much cheaper fully refundable ticket, yet expedia nor the airline has it directly. I assume the difference is in the fare classes, but if somebody would be able to explain to me what is the reason for such a huge difference here, I would appreciate it.

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    Is your travel agent based in the same city as the one in which you did your search? Some online agents will price as though you are purchasing at the itinerary's origin, others will price as though you are buying at the company's head office, others will price differently depending which localized version of their website you visited (i.e, expedia.de may give different prices from expedia.es). Both the availability on a fare bucket, and the fare tariff itself are functions of the sales city. – Calchas Apr 21 '16 at 8:09
  • The travel agency is Japanese, so probably Tokyo. I don't know expedia, but JAL is based in Japan – Panda Pajama Apr 21 '16 at 8:11
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    JAL has sales offices in many countries. Each office may have a different price for the same itinerary (it is unlikely to be this fine grained, but it is technically possible). – Calchas Apr 21 '16 at 8:12
  • Maybe your company has a contract with JL that would allow for additional reduced fares? In that case you could probably get hold of those fares with JL directly if you somehow correctly identify with them that you are part of said company? – jcaron Apr 21 '16 at 11:15
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Aside from the usual caveats, it's quite possible that your company travel agent has a corporate deal with JL or access to other fares that are not available to the general public. Airlines are free to sell their products through private channels and they retain almost total control over who sells their fares and at what price. This is what we mean when we talk of "private fares" or "corporate fares".

A number of major travel agents (such as American Express travel and Carlson Wagonlit) obtain fares at a significant discount to the public fares. They usually pocket the difference but, with the airline's permission, they may offer some seats at a lower price onto their customers. Major customers will also get large rebates from the airlines that reduce the effective ticket price per person: several major financial houses in London pay less than half what you or I pay for a transatlantic business class fare, although that won't appear on the receipt.

It's also worth saying that JAL uses a slightly strange in-house computer system to manage their fares and flight availability information, and it is interfaced with the rest of the world in an incomplete and slightly unreliable way. (For instance they do not even expose every available booking class on domestic flights to the travel agent systems.) A human travel agent might have more luck in getting their system to work than a website backend would.

  • This is a great answer! Thank you so much for the insights! – Panda Pajama Apr 23 '16 at 6:31
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The available seats within a fare class on a specific day can change without notice. If a flight is not selling well on a certain date, they may shift some seat inventory to a lower fare class to fill that flight. If a flight is selling quickly, they may move seat inventory out of the cheap fare class into a higher one. So it is possible that seat inventory changed between when you looked on Expedia and when your TA looked on their system.

According to JAL's US website, both X and D fare classes allow advance seat selection and both seem refundable after a stiff penalty fee. Can't find the same info on their Japan website. http://www.ar.jal.com/arl/region/en/flight_planning/index03.html

  • $500 cancellation fee? Stiff indeed! – jcaron Apr 21 '16 at 11:13
  • There can be several different fares (with differing cancellation penalties) who use the same primary book class. – Calchas Apr 21 '16 at 18:30
  • @Calchas - Yes that is why I mentioned that I could not find the Japan based info, as outbound fares could be different than the inbound fares. But totally non-refundable and no seat assignable business fares aren't the norm. – user13044 Apr 22 '16 at 2:30
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    @Tom JL uses the X class mostly for its highly restricted and deeply discounted business class fares. I think the product is targeted at leisure travellers. A refund penalty of 500 USD does not strike me as that bad. – Calchas Apr 22 '16 at 21:50
  • @Tom Looking at a couple of JL fares on TYO-NYC, there are only two public X fares filed and they are only valid for a narrow range of dates in the summer. They have a 50000 JPY cancellation penalty. I don't see any X fares published on TYO-SFO, but JAL has some weird proprietary computer system that doesn't always play well with the tool I use to inspect fare tariffs. – Calchas Apr 22 '16 at 21:55

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